Sudhir Venkatesh has become pretty well known in these parts as an authority on the inner workings of criminal street gangs. His new book is out tomorrow; but today, here’s a great post from him about watching “The Wire” with some of the kind of guys who are portrayed in it.
Ever since I began watching HBO’s The Wire, I felt that the show was fairly authentic in terms of its portrayal of modern urban life – not just the world of gangs and drugs, but the connections between gangland and City Hall, the police, the unions, and practically everything else. It certainly accorded with my own fieldwork in Chicago and New York. And it was much better than most academic and journalistic reportage in showing how the inner city weaves into the social fabric of a city.
Last year, I learned a lot by watching a few episodes of The Wire with gang leaders in Chicago. So, a few weeks ago, I called a few respected street figures in the New York metro region to watch the upcoming fifth season. I couldn’t think of a better way to ensure quality control.
For the first episode, we gathered in the Harlem apartment of Shine, a 43-year-old half Dominican, half African-American man who managed a gang for fifteen years before heading to prison for a ten-year drug trafficking sentence. I invited older guys like Shine, most of whom had retired from the drug trade, because they would have greater experience with rogue cops, political toughs, and everyone else that makes The Wire so appealing. They affectionately named our gathering “Thugs and ‘Cuz.” (I was told that the “‘cuz” – short for “cousin” – was for me.)
There was plenty of popcorn, ribs, bad domestic beer, and fried pork rinds with hot sauce on hand. The pork rinds, apparently the favorite of the American thug, ran out so quickly that one of the low-ranking gang members in attendance was dispatched to acquire several more bags.
Here’s a quick-and-dirty summary of the evening’s highlights:
1. The Bunk is on the take. Much to my chagrin (since he is my favorite character), the consensus in the room was that the Bunk was guilty. In the words of Shine, “He’s too good not to be profiting. I got nothing against him! But he’s definitely in bed with these street [thugs].” Many had known of Bunk’s prowess as a detective from past episodes. The opening scene, in which he craftily obtains a confession, reinforced their view that the Bunk is too good not to be hiding something.
2. Prediction No. 1: McNulty and the Bunk will split. The observation regarding Bunk’s detective work led to a second agreement, namely that McNulty or Bunk will be taken down – shot, arrested, or killed. This was closely tied to the view that McNulty and Bunk will come into conflict. The rationale? Everyone felt that Marlo, Proposition Joe, or another high-ranking gang leader must have close (hitherto unexplained) ties with one of these two detectives. “Otherwise,” Kool-J, an ex-drug supplier from Northern New Jersey, observed, “there ain’t no way they could be meeting in a Holiday Inn!” Orlando, a Brooklyn based ex-gang leader, believed the ambitions of Bunk and McNulty would run into each other. “One of them will be taken down. Either the white boy gets drunk and shoots some [guy] ’cause he’s so pissed, or Bunk gives him up to solve a case!”
3. The greatest uproar occurred when the upstart Marlo challenged the veteran Prop Joe in the co-op meeting. “If Prop Joe had balls, he’d be dead in 24 hours!” Orlando shouted. “But white folks [who write the series] always love to keep these uppity [characters] alive. No way he’d survive in East New York more than a minute!” A series of bets then took place. All told, roughly $8,000 was wagered on the timing of Marlo’s death. The bettors asked me – as the neutral party – to hold the money. I delicately replied that my piggy bank was filled up already.
4. Carcetti is a fool. Numerous observers commented on the Baltimore Mayor’s lack of “juice” and experience when it came to working with the feds. The federal police, in their opinion, love to come in and disrupt local police investigations by invoking the federal racketeering (“RICO”) statutes as a means of breaking up drug-trafficking rings. “When feds bring in RICO, local guys feel like they got no [power],” Tony-T explained, offering some empathy to local police who get neutered during federal busts. “White boy [a.k.a. Carcetti], if he knew what he was doing, would keep them cops on Marlo just long enough to build a case – then he would trade it to the feds to get what he wanted.” Others chimed in, saying that the writers either didn’t understand this basic fact, or they wanted to portray Carcetti as ignorant.
The evening ended with a series of additional wagers: Tony-T accepted challenges to his claim that Bunk dies by the end of the season; Shine proposed that Marlo would kill Prop Joe; the youngest attendee, the 29-year-old Flavor, placed $2,500 on Clay Davis escaping indictment and revealing his close ties with Marlo.
I felt obliged to chime in: I wagered $5 that the circulation of the Baltimore Sun will double, attracting a takeover by Warren Buffet by Episode 4. No one was interested enough to take my bet. Stay tuned.